“Reading Digitized Diaries”

My essay, “Reading Digitized Diaries: Privacy and the Digital Life-Writing Archive,” is now out at a/b: Autobiography Studies. I am really proud of this essay, which was the first scholarly writing about diaries I ever completed. It’s strange because my research in this area has really taken off and I have published a few other essays on the genre already, while this one worked its way slowly through the editorial process at a/b. While published later, this essay represents where I started. Looking at it now, I can already see how my thinking has evolved but I remain proud of the work and excited to have produced something out of this index — which I initially designed as a resource for my students, but which has really impacted my thinking about diaries and how modes of access shape our understanding of the genre. I hope you’ll check it out.

Teach Reflective Writing Through Reflective Writing

I mean, DUH.

That “duh” is aimed at myself, because I really hadn’t put this together. After all these years of reading and writing about diaries and other forms of reflective writing, I hadn’t realized that the best way to teach the study of the diary is to have students write diaries. This is a lesson I learned from my students. In my Fall 2015 Life Writing graduate seminar, each students was responsible for teaching a text or topic and almost every student began their teaching presentations with some form of in-class writing. They were really good at creating provocative situations with all manner of challenging parameters that produced thoughtful, creative, and sometime hilarious responses. Usually the writing prompts followed the structure of “Given situation A, write B”; for example:

You are being taken to jail and you just have enough power left in your phone to send one message (text, Tweet, or Facebook post): what would it be?


You only have a few more minutes to live; write your final diary entry.

Great, right?

On the last day of class, I asked my students why they had almost all begun their teaching lessons with a writing prompt and we had a wonderful discussion about the fact that the life writing genres we were reading (specifically diaries and letters) were ones they didn’t necessarily feel familiar with, or confident about analyzing as literary texts. So, being given the opportunity to practice writing in the form or voice of a diarist or letter writer helped to bring them into the genre in a new and useful way.

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A page from Thomas Edison’s diary (1885).

In the past, I have hesitated to assign self-reflective writing because I lacked confidence about a) how to teach a self-reflective writing process and b) how to grade self-reflective writing. My training has only prepared me to teach and evaluate analytical student writing; branching out beyond that makes me nervous. But, I am committed to rectifying this, in large part because my students have taught me that if I am going to continue to teach self-reflective writing in my classes (which I am), I need to use self-reflective writing practices to do so.

Next semester I am implementing two new assignments: The first is what I am calling “Friday Morning Reflections.” I have a MWF schedule and I plan that every Friday morning class will start with an in-class writing assignment (ungraded, maybe even not taken up) that asks students to reflect on a question, topic, or problem from the class material. These will (hopefully, if I do my backwards design well) ultimately feed into later writing assignments including my second new assignment: A gender memoir. I’m teaching the Introduction to Women’s & Gender Studies and my students will be asked to use their “Friday Reflections” as the seeds for a gender memoir that they will write at the end of the semester, (hopefully) after having gained new insight into themselves as gendered subjects. We’ll see how these assignments go, but I am interested in reflective writing as a pedagogical tool, not just as a subject matter or literary form worthy of recovery and analysis.

Image source: The Thomas Edison Papers, Rutgers University

Historical Diaries on Twitter

I wrapped up my Life Writing classes in the Fall by asking my students to consider the relationship between historical genres like diaries and letters, and contemporary social media. One group of students, working on Twitter, conveyed their understanding of the links between past and present forms of self-representation by creating a Twitter profile for one of the historical diarists we had studied this semester, Annie Ray (whose diary is reprinted in Jennifer Sinor’s The Extraordinary Work of Ordinary Writing). Ray is an exemplary “ordinary” diarist: recording her experiences in spare, fragmented language. Or, as my students noted: precisely the kind of writing required by Twitter’s 140 character limit:

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What my student’s didn’t know when they undertook this exercise is that there are several other Twitter accounts set up to reproduce historical diaries. I’ve written before about @TrapperBud, which was publishing Bud Murphy’s diary account of his gold rush experiences, and has now moved on to Matt Murphy’s diaries, dated from the 1920s.

Here are some others:

Samuel Pepys: @samuelpepys

Fanny Burney: @francesburney

John Quincy Adams: @jqadams_MHS

Genevieve Spencer: @Genny_Spencer

Andy Warhol: @warhollives

I am sure there are more, but these are the ones I’ve run across.

So, what are we to conclude from these Twitter accounts? Obviously, they do precisely what my students intended @annieraysdiary to do: they show that diaries and Twitter are closely aligned in form and content, essentially that Twitter can be considered a modern incarnation of the diary. Of course, they also show the differences, because more “literary” diaries with long reflective entries are not easily adaptable to Twitter. Rather, we see that one kind of diary (the “ordinary” kind, to use Sinor’s terminology) is being carried into the present through Twitter technology. Also, these Twitter accounts have a particularly playful quality because they invite the reader into the pretense that the historical diarist is tweeting her/his experiences directly. I think this makes the Twitter/historical diary mash-up unique. (There may be Facebook accounts written from the perspective of historical figures? I’m not on Facebook so I cannot verify this, and a little lite googling didn’t lead me anywhere.) As my students noted, there is something wonderful about imagining a historical figure like Annie Ray taking up her smart phone to record her life, just as so many of us do today.

For more:

Sean Munger, “How to be a historical figure on Twitter”